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Scottish plantswomen of note may be a rare species but they have certainly made their mark

Down the centuries, Scotland has had a reputation for producing many of the world's finest gardeners. William Aiton, from Lanarkshire, became the first superintendent at the Botanic Gardens at Kew in the 18th century. In the 19th century, famed Chinese plant hunter Robert Fortune was from the Borders, and Charles M'Intosh, horticulturalist and author, who became gardener to European royalty and aristocracy, originated from Crieff in Perthshire.


What is not so well known is the contribution that Scottish women have made to all areas of horticultural history from garden creation and plant collecting to botanical art.

In 1954, two women were awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Veitch Medal, one of the highest awards given to gardeners. This was doubly unusual: they were only the seventh and eighth women to receive the award since its instigation in 1869; that they were both Scottish women was an extra cause for celebration. One medal went to Dorothy Renton, who, with her husband John, created the beautiful gardens at Branklyn now run by the National Trust for Scotland. The gardens are famed for their displays of peat-garden plants, in particular the illusive blue Himalayan poppy, meconopsis.

The other Veitch medal went to Mrs Mary Knox-Finlay, who again with her husband Major WC Knox-Finlay grew unusual plants superbly at their home at Keillour Castle in Perthshire. Rare nomocharis flourished in their woodland garden, which they started in 1938, adding to the original late-19th century garden. One variety is named for them, Nomocharis finlayorum, a fitting tribute to this passionate gardening couple, part of that elite club of both husband and wife having been awarded the RHS's Veitch Memorial Medal.

Both these women helped create great gardens in the 20th century. But when Lady Haddington was later awarded her Veitch medal in 1973 for the development of the gardens at Tyninghame in East Lothian, she was making a link with another less well-known ancestor who also contributed to Scotland's female horticultural heritage.

Helen Hope, Countess of Haddington, gardened in the fierce conditions of Scotland in the early 18th century. She was reputedly the main force behind the tree-planting programme at Tyninghame. In addition to the 800-acre estate being planted with more than 50 species of tree, the countess oversaw the development of a "pleasaunce" or wilderness area, and a bowling green that had 14 walks emanating from its centre.

This arboreal lust had not won immediate approval from her husband, who was her first cousin. But eventually he was won round and became a tree expert himself and supportive of the vast planting schemes proposed by his wife. Writing to his grandchildren in 1733 not long before his death, he admitted that in the early years of their marriage, he "took pleasure in sports, dogs and horses but had no manner of inclination to plant, enclose or improve my grounds."

His wife, however, had other interests. "Your grandmother was a great lover of planting, (and] she did what she could to engage me to it, but in vain. At last she asked leave to go about it, which she did, and I was much pleased with some little things that were both well laid out and executed."

But it wasn't just at home that Scottish women made horticultural inroads. Christian Ramsay, Countess of Dalhousie, came from a family of Scottish lawyers, and not long after her husband succeeded to his earldom in 1815, she went with him to Nova Scotia where he had been appointed Lieutenant-Governor. Once in Halifax, Lady Dalhousie became involved with horticultural organisations. She learned about native plants, and sent seeds and living plants back to the gardens of Dalhousie Castle, near Edinburgh. She became so knowledgeable that she presented a paper on Canadian plants to the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec.

On their return to Scotland in 1824, the countess made elaborate plans to redesign the gardens at the castle. She won praise from her head gardener, a breed notoriously difficult to please, who wrote in The Gardener's Magazine in 1826, that "few…attained such proficiency as her ladyship in the science." Later, the family moved to India, when the Earl became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army.

While they were there, the countess did some serious plant collecting in and around Simla, and on their final return to Britain, she presented her complete Indian herbarium of some 1,200 specimens to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. This gesture resulted in William Hooker dedicating a volume of Curtis's Botanical Magazine to her, and Robert Graham, Professor of Botany at Edinburgh then named the genus Dalhousiea for her.

There are two sorts of plant collectors: those who visit distant countries to find species that have never been seen before, and those who relish the satisfaction of hunting down a supplier for that rare variety no-one else has. One prime example of the latter group was the consummate Scottish plantswoman, Frances Jane Hope, of Wardie Lodge, near Edinburgh. "To very many gardeners," Gardeners' Chronicle wrote in their obituary of Hope in 1880, "the garden is everything, the plants are mere accessories.

This was not Miss Hope's way of viewing things; for her, the garden existed for the plants not the plants for the garden." Her collection of hellebores was reputedly larger than in any public garden and she supposedly visited every nursery garden "of importance" in England and Scotland, and one suspects never came away empty-handed.

She would have loved the nursery of plantswoman and artist Mary McMurtrie. A wife of the manse, Mrs McMurtrie began it at her home at Skene in Aberdeenshire in the 1930s where she happily propagated saxifrages, primroses, pinks and auriculas, in between looking after her husband, the parish minister, and four children. When they moved to Balbithan House, Kintore, not far away, the stock came too.

Mrs McMurtrie began producing small plant catalogues and, having been to art school, accompanied these with delicate and highly-prized watercolours which she exhibited along with her plants at the Scottish Rock Garden Club's shows. Fortified by a "dram of sherry" from the bottle kept in her library desk, she gardened throughout the year, braving Scotland's coldest days to be outside watching over her precious plants.

In her eighties Mrs McMurtrie moved in with her daughter but continued gardening enthusiastically for another 15 years. Her artwork remained more in demand than ever, and in 1975 Roy Genders asked her to do some illustrations for his book, Growing Old-Fashioned Flowers. She began writing and illustrating her own books, and just before she died in 2003, aged 101, she was given an award by the charity, Counsel and Care for the Elderly, for being the oldest British working artist on the publication of Old Cottage Pinks in the same year.


This article was first published in The Scotsman on 15 May 2010.

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